The genre of hip-hop comes ready-made with its own hyphenate, a fact that should serve as a warning to enterprising genre splicers, but has instead provided a tacit challenge to such groups as Limp Bizkit, WZRD and, most recently, the Sacramento trio Death Grips. While the latter group provides the most interesting example of genre cross-pollination, the question of who offers the greatest auditory discomfort is still, unfortunately, a matter of debate.
While variations on ill-advised hip-hop hybridization abound, it is the genre of rock and roll with which record executives and suburban teens seem most determined to perform this animal husbandry. The artistic results of such coupling have been questionable at best, deepening the mystery of why rap-rock persisted for as long as it did. (Or perhaps it still persists; Limp Bizkit is currently working on a comeback album.)
Any stylistic similarity between the two genres is a matter of coincidence. Rock music prizes melodic muscle, whereas hip-hop can get by purely on lyrical nuance. In order for rap and rock to cohabitate equitably, rock songs essentially have to be chopped up and turned into beats (see, “Walk This Way”). Disastrous counterexamples abound. Give a listen to WZRD, Limp Bizkit, or certain Justin Bieber tracks if you need convincing.
I’d argue this dichotomy results from the essential thematic divergence underpinning the two genres. Hip-hop rose from urban environments, and is still the province of predominantly African American artists. Rock, on the other hand, plays a white man’s game in a white man’s world. To indicate a hierarchy here would be less provocative than simply pointless. Rock and hip-hop are, at their heart-of-hearts, talking about different things. The petulant opulence of post-war white America makes for an awkward bedfellow with the cyclical poverty that has ravaged the nation’s inner cities. The result: rock tends toward anger; hip-hop tends toward humor (which is worth investigation in and of itself).
The latest mad scientists to attempt a pairing of the two genres are the three members of the Sacramento band Death Grips. Unlike its predecessors, Death Grips bases its combination of hip-hop, electronic music and metal not off of a well-attuned marketing study, but instead off of what can only be described as its own unique madness.
You could describe Death Grips’ tracks as abrasive, but this adjective really doesn’t do justice to the bedlam of the trio’s growling, distorted goulash. MC Ride (nay, Stefan Burnett) growls lyrics about third world injustice over distorted guitar lines and the thumping of what I’m almost certain is a drummer who cut his chops in the world of punk rock.
Death Grips’ work sounds more authentic than some of the rap-rock experiments that have preceded it, but the trio’s howling dissatisfaction still owes more to its punk rock forefathers than to the industrial hip-hop that is also an obvious influence. And that’s the thing about Death Grips: even though it’s a talented group, it provides an experience that I expect from rock music, rather than from hip-hop. Like so many of the acts that preceded it, Death Grips is more interesting because of what it’s trying to do than because of what it actually does.